Q: “Twilight in Delhi” shows the decay of Mughal kinship or Muslim Civilization. Discuss.
Twilight in Delhi gives a broad and realistic view of the Muslim life set in Delhi. With the collapse of the Mughal Empire, the old feudal order in the Muslim society had disintegrated and the Muslim bourgeois and aristocrats were no longer prominent. This novel gives a glimpse of the discontent that was brewing among the Muslims during the second decade of the twentieth century. As the title of the novel suggests, the city of Delhi is now no longer at its pinnacle of glory and Mir Nihal’s premonitions infuse the reader with the ominous sense that very soon, Delhi would plunge into the darkness of night. In fact, when the novel ends, it is both literally and figuratively dark.
The novel devotes many pages to what colonialism has done to the city of Delhi, giving both a panoramic and close view. The author turns the city into a living entity that has been “mourned and sung, devastated and conquered, yet whole and alive lies indifferent in the arms of sleep”. Lamenting the death of its culture, he cries out, “yet gone is its glory and departed are those from whom it got the breath of life”. Giving a picture of total abjection, the author says, “Like a beaten dog, it has curled its tail between its legs, and lies lifeless in the night as an acknowledgment of defeat”.
There is a poetic account of the anger that is felt by the residents of Delhi at not only what the British are doing to its landscape, but at the imminent demise of a culture and a way of life with the construction of a new Delhi outside the old city.
“She would become the city of the dead, inhabited by people who would have no love for her, nor any associations with her history and ancient splendor”. In the summer of 1918, with the demolishment of the protective city walls, Delhi reels not only under a terrible heat but loses thousands of its denizens to the First World War and the influenza epidemic.
The novel’s lyricism in its depiction of the decay in the city of Delhi and its inhabitants is enhanced by the sprinkling of poetic passages from different Urdu poets. All of them are infused with thematic significance, reflecting the mood of the characters and heightening the intensity of the dominant emotion. The epigraphs beginning each of the parts of the novel mirror the condition of the city itself. At one point the novelist says,
“This world is a house of many mirrors. Wherever you turn you see your own images in the glass. They multiply and become innumerable until you begin to feel frightened of your own self”. Perhaps in these words, we can find justification for his use of a child’s cry, a beggar’s song, or a qawwali to bring to light the emotional state of a particular character.
But it is Bahadur Shah who is a continuing and haunting presence in the novel. The last of the Mughal kings, who had to suffer the most humiliating treatment at the hands of the British forces, Bahadur Shah’s pain-filled poetry resonates throughout. Sometimes, it is the beggar called Bahadur Shah who sings his poems,
“I’m the light of no one’s eye,
The rest of no one’s heart am I”.
Or, sometimes, it is the king’s granddaughter, Gul Bano, now reduced to a beggar, singing his verses in a plaintive voice,
“Delhi was once a paradise,
Such peace had abided here”.
It is as if the downfall of the poet king is a pointer to the macrocosm of the city’s downfall, its present state of ruin and degeneration.
The novel vividly delineates the clash of two cultures; between tradition and modernity. The events are set in a time when Western modes of living and thinking were entering Indian homes and minds. Mir Nihal, the embodiment of the old customs, is pained at this “hybrid culture” which is a “hodgepodge of Indian and Western ways which he failed to understand”. He is grieved that the “wealth of poetry” is gone and there is “in place of emotion and sentiments a vulgar sentimentality”. The author’s own nostalgia for the old phase of life is seen in the representation of the character of Mir Nihal. The reader is given a glimpse of his existential dilemmas, his musings on the impermanence of the world, or the callous indifference of death, or how life goes on despite death and one’s personal grief. But Mir Nihal himself is not free from human frailties – there is a hint that he has fathered a child by the maid Dilchain, an incident, which affects the mental stability of his wife. The narrator mocks at Mir Nihal’s insistence on family honor by showing him, immediately after his outburst, to be thrown some fuel dust carried by a donkey and Ghaffoor’s parrot breaking into a peal of laughter.
The novel shows how the older generation feels outraged at some of the younger people’s acceptance of Western habits. Mir Nihal does not like his son Asghar’s adoption of English clothes and manners. Bilqeece becomes the target of insulting remarks when she wears English shoes. Small incidents like these reflect the resentment that is brewing in the hearts of many people at the colonial intrusion into their everyday lives.
Asghar is the new modern man who not only chooses his own bride but also later opts for a nuclear family. But his portrait is not without criticism. The novelist explores his inner feelings, the pain he suffers on account of his love for Bilqeece. His poetic sensibility is highlighted in the phantasmagoric dreams he sees and the poems of love and longing that he recites in order to express his dilemma. But somehow, the reader fails to sympathize with him. The surge of self-pity in his utterances is disconcerting. Showing psychological insight, the author remarks that Asghar was, “not so much in love with her as with his own self, his own dreams, and illusions, which she had created in his mind…”
The taint of his modernity is reflected in his being trapped in a patriarchal mindset. This is seen in his shabby treatment of Bilqeece after his passion for her cools and later, his efforts to marry Zohra by claiming that his child needs a mother when he himself has fallen in love with her.
Thus, the novel delineates both a traditional and a modern way of life in the persons of Mir Nihal and Asghar respectively, but it also points out the flaws in both ideologies.
Twilight in Delhi is not an explicitly political novel – it deals with the impact of colonialism on people’s social lives. It does not have any of the main characters engaged in any direct action against the British forces. Mirza, the milk seller’s son is shot-dead when he goes to non-co-operate but Mirza is a peripheral character and his son does not even appear in the novel. British rule does not have a specifically harmful impact on the particular Muslim family that the novel deals with. But it gives a glimpse of the emotional anguish that some of the characters experience because of colonial rule. For instance, Mir Nihal’s state of mind on the day of the coronation of King George V, “There were those men of 1857, and here were the men of 1911, chicken-hearted and happy in their disgrace. This thought filled him with pain, and he sat there, as it were, on the rack, weeping dry tears of blood, seeing the death of his world and of his birthplace”.
Mir Nihal’s loss of his youth and health mirrors the predicament of Delhi itself. Bedridden with paralysis, he lives in a “constant twilight of velleities and regrets, watching the young die one by one and gain their liberty from the sorrows of the world”. The devouring of his pigeons by the cat not only puts an end to his favorite hobby but can also be taken as a symbol for the intrusion of colonial forces into the heart of India. But though Mir Nihal is sensitive to all this, his daily life is unaffected either by British rules and policies or by nationalist struggles for freedom.
Asghar is also totally indifferent to the widespread freedom movements of 1919. “He was unconcerned whether the country lived or died”. It is ironic that he considers love to be the only permanent thing when he falls in love with his wife’s sister just after six months of his wife’s death. On the other hand, the novel shows people like Saeed Hasan, Mir Nihal’s son-in-law who is affected by “foreign modernity” but unperturbed by foreign rule. “Life went on peacefully for aught he cared, and that was all he was interested in, like most Indian fatalists”. Being comparatively well off, the male members of the family can afford to hold long discussions regarding the harmful effects of foreign rule without being directly affected by it. When the influenza epidemic struck and people had difficulty in affording a winding sheet for a dead relative, Asghar could build a proper grave for his wife.
Coming to the question of the “Indianness’ of the novel, we find that Ahmed Ali tries to infuse his work with indigenous concerns by deploying a particular theme, style, imagery, and setting.
His style is realism. Harish Raizada quotes Ahmed Ali, “Our literature so far has been of an individualist type, sentimental, unrealistic, irrational, mystical. Conditions demand an uncompromising realism, looking the problems in the face, literature brutal even in its ruggedness without embellishments and unnecessary insistence on form and technique”. In accordance with these views, everything is treated to realistic detail. Describing the by-lanes of Delhi, the author comments “Dogs go about sniffing the gutters in search of offal; and cats slink out of narrow by lanes, from under the planks jutting out of shops, and lick the earthen cups out of which men had drunk milk and thrown away”. Though the novel gives a sweeping view of members of different social strata and accordingly has a huge number of characters with markedly different personalities, it gives us a glimpse of the everyday doings and concerns of the Nihals. Then there is the realistic depiction of the elaborate rituals involved in marriage ceremonies, funerals, and religious festivals of Id, kite flying, pigeon flying, and the pervasive belief in superstition.
But the question arises as to whether the novel tries to impute homogeneity to Indian tradition and culture. Mourning the passing away of great art and culture, the author makes Mir Nihal consider only posts like Mir, Ghalib, and Insha as the “great poets of Hindustan”. The Mughal Empire and monuments built by Mughals are regarded as the mark of glory and splendor of the city of Delhi, though there is a minor reference to the Kauravas and the Pandavas. By doing this, the author imparts singularity to India’s rich and plural cultural heritage. Vinayak Krishna Gokak in his book “The Concept of Indian Literature” remarks, “An integral cultural awareness is an indispensable feature of Indianness. I would not say that the novel here falls short of Indianness but it does infuse homogeneity by glorifying only a portion of the entire Indian heritage and calling it the whole”. K. Satchidanandan in” Indian Literature: Positions and Propositions” has pointed out that Indian writers are first and foremost Indian, no matter what language they write in, because of their works’ rootedness in their social, historical and cultural contexts. But this basic unity has in no way eroded the fascinating diversity of our literature. Twilight in Delhi is very different from the other literary texts already done in this course both in theme and form – a pointer to the heterogeneity of Indian literature. But an Indian setting and theme mark it, reflecting Vinayak Krishna Gokak’s comment that Indian literature is a thread of continuity against a background of continuous change.
In conclusion, it can be pointed out that Indian novels in English and works in Indian languages are, as Mukherjee says, “Disparate literary products of a complex plural culture” and they should not be congealed into rigid and opposed positions. From our situatedness in a time when upper and middle-class Indian society has internalized so many Western habits and ways of life, Twilight in Delhi can be seen as looking into a time when the situation was very different, and as trying to articulate a people’s helplessness in the face of what colonialism was doing to their culture and to their beloved and once glorious city. To quote Hassan Askari, “Ahmed Ali has not written a story of a few individuals alone, but of a people, a city, a particular culture, a period of history. His theme is not confined to a few characters and their biographies, but to an entire city. This is in reality, a collective novel, whose hero is the city of Delhi”.